Pedestrian Access Act Incites Community Backlash

“Ticketing homeless people is not going to fill the potholes,” said Paul, exasperated. Paul, who is fifty-one years old, was fired from his last full-time job at Home Depot seven years ago, when a medical catastrophe left him unable to work for more than a month.

He used his sick and vacation days trying to deal with an intense pain that came out of nowhere. “It felt like a horse kicked me in the gut,” he recalled. Unable to bear it any longer, Paul went to the hospital. “They were tryna tell me I was lactose intolerant,” he snorts. Upon further inspection, the doctors found a hernia; in surgery, they found stage two colon cancer. “Can you say misdiagnosis,” Paul mutters.

After three weeks in the hospital, Paul was released, with a $100,000 bill. After government agencies realized there was no way he would be able to pay, it was reduced to $10,000.

“Once the unemployment ran out, it went downhill,” Paul continued. He stayed on a friend’s couch, then bounced around a few program-run houses. Later, he realized he was eligible for college funding as a veteran, and enrolled in Pikes Peak Community College, studying to become a paralegal. Paul never graduated and eventually found himself on the street. Paul has been homeless for two years.

If Paul were to sit or lie down on the sidewalk in downtown Colorado Springs, he could be fined up to $500. If he were to persist, and was cited a second time, Paul could go to jail for up to 90 days.

The Pedestrian Access Act Ordinance, which passed 6-3 in Colorado Springs City Council, will come into effect on April 9, after a 60-day education period. Part of a statewide trend of targeting homeless people through city ordinances, the Access Act is a reformat of the Sit-Lie Ordinance, which was rejected after widespread criticism of the scope and severity of punishment, spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU).

“The ACLU Colorado has been working for a number of years to fight back against laws that criminalize homelessness across Colorado,” John Krieger, Director of communications and outreach for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said, “And the sit-lie ordinance is one of the most absurd that we’ve ever come across.”

The original version of the Sit-Lie Ordinance, was rejected in 2015 after uproar from the community. The original version proposed fines up to $2,500, and jail time up to six months. The failed ordinance was toned down, rebranded, and eventually passed.

Many, such as Jill Gaebler, pro-term president of the Colorado Springs City Council, oppose the ordinance on the grounds that it would target the homeless. “I think it will be implemented and enforced in an arbitrary way just to keep certain individuals from milling around downtown,” Gaebler said.

Proponents of the bill deny this assertion. “It’s not really against the homeless,” said Larry Bagley, the district two representative on the city council. “It’s trying to clean up the business area downtown so that all pedestrians can have access to using the sidewalk, and to avoid any confrontation with the people sleeping on the sidewalk.”

Bagley is dismissive of the potential for fines and jail time. “In actual fact I don’t think any of the police officers or any of the judges will use that option,” he argued. “I think common sense and good judgment will prevail.”

Although he does not believe they will be implemented in reality, Bagley believes  that the fines are included to give police a last resort.

Gaebler is less certain. “I understand they don’t like the vagrancy problem, but to pick and choose who should be able to sit and loiter, it doesn’t seem the appropriate role of government to me,” she said.

Krieger, for his part, believes that no matter the extent of the punishment, it is ridiculous to create a law that makes it illegal to sit. He fully expects to see homeless people in jail as a result.

pat2The Sit-Lie Ordinance was proposed in Mayor John Suther’s first 10 days in office. The ordinance looked remarkably like a draft written a year earlier by Perry Sander’s firm, Sanders Law Firm LLC. Sanders is a lawyer who also owns substantial amounts of property in the downtown district, including the Mining Exchange and Wyndham Grand Hotel & Spa. He is in the process of buying the Antlers Hilton.

The similarities between the drafts were first discovered by the Colorado Springs Gazette, which reported that the draft presented to the City Council was almost a word-for-word copy of the draft written a year earlier by Justin Bailey, an employee of Sander’s firm.

The city’s reiteration of the draft changed the law to encompass trails as well as streets, extended the hours of operation so that the law was in effect until 10 p.m. (rather than 9 p.m.), and removed two blocks from the area affected. Otherwise, the versions were nearly identical.

Perry Sanders contributed $10,000 to Suthers’ mayoral campaign.

Although the bill was likely a result of the Sanders-Suthers relationship, Bagley insists that there was no pressure on council members to vote in favor of the ordinance.

The Pedestrian Access Act is the most recent law in a wave of state-wide anti-homelessness policies that make it extremely difficult for people experiencing homelessness to stay out of jail. A University of Denver report entitled “Too High a Price” found that there are 351 anti-homeless ordinances in Colorado’s 76 largest cities.

The introduction to the report reads, “While professing a dedication to eliminating homelessness through homeless and poverty services, state actors continue to write, pass, and enforce local ordinances that criminalize life-sustaining behaviors.”

Anti-homeless ordinances include policies that criminalize necessary-to-life activities, such as sleeping, eating, and using the bathroom. It almost guarantees that people experiencing homelessness will break the law by simply existing.

Although the number of homeless people in Colorado increased 600 percent between 1990 and 2010, they are still only 0.01 percent of Colorado’s population; they represent 5 percent of individuals cited under municipal codes.

Anti-homeless ordinances in one city tend to inspire similar ordinances across the state. Some of the most typical ordinances are camping bans, curfews and closures, solicitation and panhandling ordinances, and urinating in public.

“Cities are engaged in a kind of race to the bottom, where the cities that can be the most draconian, the cities that can take the worst possible measures to push people out of their municipalities are really pushing people to the next place over,” Krieger explained, “and then that next place over engages in some of the same practices to push them to the next.”

Curfews and closures make it illegal to inhabit areas of a city in the hours when people would return to their houses. In Colorado Springs, Acacia Park, a common place for homeless people to rest, closes at 9 p.m. in the winter and 11 p.m. in the summer. Staying in the park after it closes becomes trespassing.

Solicitation and panhandling bans make it illegal for people to ask for charity. Solicitation laws are beginning to change after Grand Junction’s version of the ordinance was struck down in Federal District Court on the grounds that the ordinance violated the First Amendment.

Many bathrooms are ‘customers only,’ especially when a person experiencing homelessness is asking. Public urination ordinances, reasonable for non-homeless people, become impossible not to violate for homeless people.

“The request being made by people who are experiencing homelessness all throughout a city amounts to a form of expression that government should not be able to hide,” Krieger said. “The discomfort that people feel when they encounter someone who is experiencing homelessness… that discomfort that you feel is the only thing that will cause people to tell their leaders to address the problem.”

Anti-homeless ordinances, operating on questionable moral grounds, are also wildly impractical economically. The University of Denver estimates that Colorado’s six largest cities spent $5 million to enforce 14 ordinances in 2014 alone.

Denver spent $742,790 in 2014 enforcing just five anti-homeless ordinances, of which $261,689 went to policing, $203,406 went to adjudication (the court process), and $277,695 went to incarceration. Half of all citations given to homeless people resulted in jail time. The City of Denver’s Crime Prevention and Control estimates that it costs Denver $35,000 per chronically homeless individual per year.

In the same time period, Colorado Springs spent $23,325 enforcing its sleep/lay ban, $78,035 enforcing the solicitation near a street ban, and $51,143 on the camping ban. There were only 1,219 homeless people in the Springs at the time.

In addition to the extraordinary yearly costs of criminalizing homelessness, fining people and throwing them in jail makes it nearly impossible for them to escape homelessness. It is much harder to find a job when you are in, or after you have been, to jail. As a result, current policies ensure that enforcing homelessness laws will remain expensive in the future.

Utah took a different approach. By finding permanent residences for people experiencing homelessness to live with no prerequisites, they were able to decrease homelessness by 72 percent in only nine years. It costs Utah $10,000 to $12,000 per homeless person per year.

Providing housing is not the only solution capable of reducing homelessness. Rapid re-housing, which provides short term accommodation for those who have recently become homeless, as well as specialized courts that deal with homeless crime in a context-dependent fashion, also reduce the cost of being homeless, and allow people to get themselves back on their feet.

The Right to Rest Act would guarantee homeless people the right to move freely in public spaces, rest in public spaces, eat or accept food where food is not prohibited, occupy a legally parked vehicle, and have a reasonable expectation of privacy when in their own property. The bill has been struck down twice, but will return in the next legislative session.

Gaebler and Bagley agree that Colorado Springs should be doing more to help the homeless, emphasizing the need to get people into permanent homes. Public opinion is also shifting, and a group of Colorado Springs activists are planning a protest to contest the Pedestrian Access Act.

Paul calls the current system a catch-22. With no home, he is unable to find a job, with no job, he cannot pay rent. He is frustrated with the lack of access to bathrooms and the city’s tendency to discriminate against, rather than help, the homeless. Paul asks, “Do you need me to show you proverbs?”

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